Imperial opens UK's first synthetic-biology foundry

The UK’s first robotically automated commercial ‘foundry’ for producing and checking the DNA needed to develop customised yeasts and bacteria for synthetic biology has opened at Imperial College, London.

Operated by SynbiCITE, a UK-based knowledge centre set up by a group of academic institutions and companies, The Foundry will form part of a network of DNA-production and testing centres across the UK and join other centres that have been built in the US and Singapore. The lab was funded partly by a £2m grant from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) announced two years ago, together with £1.8m from other research-council grants.

The University of Edinburgh is using £1.8m from the BBSRC to build its own foundry intended to create long gene sequences – up to one million base pairs. These longer sequences allow the transplant of entire genomes into simple bacterial chassis. The target in the 2010 experiment at the J Craig Venter Institute to ‘reboot’ a microbe with synthetic DNA had a 1.1m base-pair genome.

Professor Paul Freemont, co-director of Imperial’s Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation, said the core chemistry behind de novo DNA synthesis has not changed significantly since the 1980s. “It involves dealing with lots of steps that involve tiny amount of liquid,” he explained.

Improved automation has delivered most of the cost improvements in synthesis so far. Specialised robots speed up the process of mixing and purifying the chemicals as the DNA strand is extended one base pair at a time.

Professor Richard Kitney, says initiatives like this can make synthetic biology cheaper to use and much more widespread: “We expect that the cost of synthesising DNA will come right down.”

Freemont said automation will prove fundamental to many other parts of synthetic biology research and development. Producing the DNA and transplanting it into a target genome is only part of the problem facing scientists. “Constructing biology is not plug and play,” he said. “The parts we are using today are not characterised well enough to do predictive modelling and design.”

Characterising the results and using those findings to develop organisms that are more efficient at producing pharmaceuticals and other materials is today highly laborious. This has led to the development of more sophisticated robots that can perform the necessary experiments automatically. Freemont said Imperial researchers are now working on their second-generation characterisation robot that will help close what they call the “design, build, test, learn” cycle.

SynbiCITE CEO Stephen Chambers said the unit will take orders for DNA and tests and deliver “the data or prototype to the biodesigner once the work is complete”.

Professor Susan Rosser of the University of Edinburgh said the use of synthetic biology to create customised bacteria and yeasts would help streamline the production of chemicals and increasingly complex pharmaceuticals and medical treatments, many of which use “biologics” – biomolecules such as short protein strands.

“Some 40 per cent of drugs are now biologics,” Rosser claimed. “The ability to produce these efficiently will have a major economic impact.”

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